Federal report shows decline in loggerhead turtle population
WASHINGTON - After encouraging gains in the 1990s, populations of loggerhead sea turtles are now dropping, primarily because of commercial fishing, according to a federal review.
The report stops short of recommending upgrading the federally threatened species to endangered status.
But scientists and environmentalists say it should serve as a wake-up call about the future of loggerheads, which can grow to more than 300 pounds and are believed to be one of the oldest species.
"We are very concerned," said Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist for the state of Georgia. In 2006, the state counted the third-lowest loggerhead nesting total since daily monitoring began in 1989.
"As a biologist you're always trying to find that point at which we really have to start doing something drastic if we want to maintain loggerhead populations on our beaches," Dodd said.
The state is not there yet, he said, but it has increased protections for the turtle under its own endangered species law.
The Southeast - Florida in particular - is one of the two largest loggerhead nesting areas in the world; eggs are laid and hatched along beaches from Texas to North Carolina.
The other major nesting area is in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman.
According to the federal report, US nestings have dropped almost 7 percent annually in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years.
Numbers in south Florida are down about 4 percent annually, while populations in the Carolinas and Georgia have dropped about 2 percent per year.
The review, a five-year status update required under the Endangered Species Act, compiled data from previous local reports, which showed similar trends.
It was conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which jointly have jurisdiction over protecting the turtles.
The US loggerhead trend is a marked turnaround from the steady or increasing numbers found in the 1990s.
In south Florida, for example, nesting studies showed gains of almost 4 percent per year from 1989 to 1998.
Researchers are puzzled by the shift; some suspect expanding commercial fishing operations are to blame.
The report said fisheries are the "most significant manmade factor affecting the conservation and recovery of the loggerhead."
The government intends to issue an updated recovery plan for the turtle in the coming months, but advocates say federal agencies have responded slowly to threats to the species.
Citing the long-term trends confirmed in the new study, they want more money spent to evaluate the loggerhead's migration patterns and its encounters with fishing fleets.
To view the report on loggerheads, go to tinyurl.com/3bvjdh